Many Americans switch religious denominations, study finds
In a landmark survey, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds a new religious landscape in America.
A panoramic snapshot of American religious life in 2008 reveals an extraordinary dynamism that is reshaping the country's major traditions in historic ways.Skip to next paragraph
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Almost half of Americans have moved to a different religious denomination from that in which they were raised, and 28 percent have switched to a different major tradition or to no religion (i.e., from Roman Catholic to Protestant, Jewish to unaffiliated).
The fluidity is combining with immigration to spur dramatic changes in the religious landscape. Protestantism appears on the verge of losing its majority status. The number of "unaffiliated" Americans has doubled, to 16 percent. One-third of Catholics are now Latino and the religion is depending on immigration to maintain its share of the population.
These shifts are captured in a survey released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
"The extent of change in the American religious marketplace is remarkable," says Luis Lugo, the Pew Forum's director, in an interview. "Everyone is losing, and has difficulty retaining childhood members, but everyone is also gaining."
The report is the first of three that Pew will release this year from a path-breaking survey of the US religious landscape. Based on interviews in English or Spanish with a representative sample of 35,000 adults, it describes America's religious composition and the changes under way. Later this spring, the second report will analyze Americans' beliefs and practices, and the third, their social and political values.
The movement between churches and denominations is not new, but the report documents its remarkable scope. "Religious fluidity is part of a larger picture of fluidity in American life generally," says Wade Clark Roof, author of "Spiritual Marketplace" and professor at University of California at Santa Barbara. "You can read this as 'It's what America is about – we choose.... The downside is enormous instability, lack of grounding, wandering in the wilderness."
Observers point to many reasons for the shifts. People may change churches because they relocate to a part of the country where different denominations predominate, or they may prefer another style of worship. Whatever the reasons, the survey reveals some clear winners and losers.
Protestantism, which has shaped American identity for generations, may soon become a minority faith. In the 1980s, 65 percent of Americans called themselves Protestants; today that number is down to 51 percent. Only 43 percent of those aged 18-29 say they are Protestant.
Much has been written about the declines in mainline churches. But in comparing the current religious affiliation of adults with their childhood affiliations, the survey found a net loss of 3.7 percent for Baptists (Baptists account for one-third of all Protestants and nearly two-thirds of black Protestant churches.)